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“Athletic trainer” is a deceptively simple job title. Immediately, it conjures the image of a khaki- and polo-clad medical professional kneeling next to an injured player on a softball field or basketball court. These stalwart specialists have long been the first line of defense against career-ending injuries, monitoring early morning practices and late-night games to keep athletes performing their best.

However, despite the name, the athletic training field now encompasses a wide range of industries. Athletic trainers are employed in manufacturing, performing arts, the military and even NASA. Three EKU Exercise and Sports Science alumni went on to practice in some of these diverse areas: Nikki Strickland, ’15, at the Toyota Manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky; Kelly Jo Rodrigo, ’07, for the Cincinnati Ballet; and Brian Ebel, ’88, for the Baltimore Orioles as head athletic trainer.

Nikki Strickland on the Toyota Motor Manufacturing floor.

The Industrial Athlete

Industrial manufacturing workers face many of the same physical strains as professional athletes — heavy lifting, being on their feet all day and repetitive motion, to name a few. As a result, they face many of the same injuries. This realization has given rise to the idea of the “industrial athlete.” Coined by OSHA, the term refers to any worker who makes a living performing physical jobs that require skill, strength, flexibility, coordination and endurance.

Nikki Strickland has been treating industrial athletes for direct health care provider Premise Health since she finished her master’s degree in 2017. Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown, Kentucky, contracts with Premise Health to staff athletic trainers to protect manufacturing employees. The plant operates at all hours and Strickland works second shift; she goes to work at 3 p.m., as most people’s workdays draw to a close, and clocks out around midnight.

The job of an athletic trainer in a manufacturing plant can look very different from that in a sports setting. Industrial athletes are more likely to suffer from overuse injuries than a sprained ankle or broken arm, which requires a different type of treatment plan. Soreness and discomfort are also common complaints, which were long considered to be part and parcel of the job. However, manufacturers like Toyota and athletic trainers like Strickland are blazing new paths in employee health and safety.

“The most important thing for industrial athletes is realizing that just because you’re feeling sore doesn’t mean that’s just what you should expect from the job,” she said.

The bulk of Strickland’s job is coaching patients on techniques to combat those issues. Simple changes in posture, motion and routine can prevent overuse injuries before they happen. The result is cost savings to both the worker and the company — employees avoid expensive medical treatment and spend less time off work, while businesses save on health insurance and workers’ compensation costs.

For Strickland, her patients are more than just a number. She gets to know each employee and takes a vested interest in their well-being. Seeing them feel better makes her long days worthwhile.

“You create these lifelong relationships with people,” she said. “It’s nice to see that we’re successful in keeping them well.”

Kelly Jo Rodrigo helps a Cincinnati Ballet performer stretch.

The Performer

Athletes and performers suffer from many of the same injuries, which is why more and more dance companies, circuses, pop stars and more travel with an athletic trainer as part of their crew. Kelly Jo Rodrigo is one such trainer, treating dancers with the Cincinnati Ballet since 2011.

Rodrigo wasn’t a sports fan when she started helping her high school’s athletic trainer in Maysville, Kentucky — she was simply trying to find a place to fit in. However, she quickly learned that she enjoyed helping people.

“I really liked the idea of taking somebody from the darkest moment in their life, trying to get back from an injury, back to do something they love. But I didn’t like being on the football field or watching basketball practice,” she said. “I danced in school. I never played a sport. So when I found out that there were athletic trainers in the performing arts, it was like a light bulb went off — that’s where I belong.”

Rodrigo sought out EKU for its exceptional Exercise and Sports Science program. After graduating, she earned a graduate degree in performing arts medicine and traveled internationally with major touring acts such as Broadway shows and Lord of the Dance. Now, as the Cincinnati Ballet’s athletic trainer, she sees the dancers through six hours of rehearsal a day and performances six months of the year.

Like industrial athletes, dancers frequently sustain chronic overuse injuries, but can be at risk for sprains, breaks and other serious injuries as well. The intense, repetitive motions of dance lead to lots of stress fractures, ligament tears and tendonitis. Though dance is among the most demanding of physical activities, society doesn’t always encourage dancers to be aware of their physical needs — greater emphasis is often placed on poise and appearance. That’s why Rodrigo and the Cincinnati Ballet advocate for dance medicine not just for performers, but young dancers throughout the greater Cincinnati area. Rodrigo visits Cincinnati’s dance studios, offering physicals, treatment and advice to young dancers.

“We try to make the dancers recognize that they are athletes, so they need the care that an athlete gets,” she said.

Brian Ebel in the Baltimore Orioles dugout.

The Traditional Athlete

Brian Ebel has spent his career treating baseball players — he is an athletic trainer in the traditional sense. His passion for sports medicine has been nearly lifelong. After receiving quality care from an athletic trainer for a sprained ankle in the eighth grade, Ebel saw the same lightbulb as Rodrigo — this is what I want to do.

That interest led him to EKU. His career began the summer after his freshman year as an athletic training intern with a Baltimore Orioles-owned minor league team. He spent 12 seasons in the minor leagues as an athletic trainer and rehabilitation/medical coordinator before moving to the big leagues. Now in his 23rd season in the major leagues, Ebel is in his second season as Head Athletic Trainer for the Orioles.

On any given day, Ebel has to hustle just as hard as his athletes. His days begin early with phone calls and end late in the locker rooms. Balancing athlete treatment with high-level administrative duties is no easy feat. Besides working with players, he oversees all treatment and rehabilitation plans for the Orioles and its associated minor leagues; supervises all team medical and athletic training staff; and communicates with coaches, managers and team administration. But season after hectic season, Ebel is sustained by a love for the profession present since that eighth-grade injury.

“You’ve got to love and believe in what you do,” said Ebel, “because there are no shortcuts.”

Like Strickland and Rodrigo, Ebel works not only to treat injuries but to prevent them. Athletic trainers are increasingly focusing on workload management, the practice of optimizing the amount of training an athlete takes on to help them recover. The goal is to push the player hard enough to improve, but not so hard that they become fatigued and susceptible to injury. Over the course of his career, Ebel has also seen the rise of a holistic approach to player wellness: sleep, nutrition and recovery time all factor into an athlete’s training regimen.

Despite his many years of experience, Ebel never stops learning.  Rapid progress in science and technology keeps him in a state of continuing education. But Ebel not only welcomes it; he thrives on it. The latest scientific, evidence-based practices, he has found, are the key to successful athletes.

“It is a really exciting time for my profession,” he said.

Strickland and Rodrigo concur. From the field to the stage, and from the factory to outer space, new and exciting career paths are opening for athletic trainers every day.

This story appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of EKU Magazine. Read the full issue.